Speaking to The Independent, Dame Louise Casey claimed ministers were stuck in an “ideological trench” over the decision to remove the uplift to the benefit payment that was introduced at the onset of the pandemic.
The crossbench peer, who has advised five prime ministers, stressed that she was “so disappointed” in both Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Mr Johnson following the agreement to end the emergency uplift – worth around £1,000 per year.
“I really think it’s an unnecessary evil what they’re doing, if they do this,” she said. “It’s unnecessary, really unnecessary.”
Dame Louise, who last year appeared at a No 10 Covid briefing, also said the implications of the pandemic on some of Britain’s poorest families was “exponential” and insisted the public were sympathetic to keeping the uplift.
The intervention comes amid growing disquiet among Tory backbenchers over the cut and stark warnings from anti-poverty groups that millions of families could be left with less than half of the income required for an acceptable standard of living.
Just last week the influential Northern Research Group – representing around 50 Conservative MPs – told The Independent that the universal credit uplift had been a “life-saver” and urged the government to keep it in place.
Six former work and pensions secretaries from the party’s ranks, including Iain Duncan Smith, also wrote to the chancellor last month protesting against the cut and calling for the uplift to be put on a “permanent footing”.
But speaking at a committee last week, cabinet minister Therese Coffey confirmed the £20-per-week emergency payments would be “phased out”, with claimants told before October they will see an “adjustment” in payments.
Dame Louise, whose most recent government job was chairing the Covid-19 rough sleeping taskforce during the initial months of the Covid-19 crisis, stressed the immediate repercussions of removing the extra payments “will be that people who already have barely anything to live on will have even less”.
“We’ll have another winter of increased use of foodbanks, increased use of handouts – in the fifth or sixth highly developed country in the world we’re relying on relief for our own citizens,” she said.
The former adviser, who was also director-general of the Troubled Families programme under David Cameron between 2011 and 2015, added: “I’m just so disappointed in the government. There are good people in this government, and this is a very disappointing thing for them to be doing.
“I’m disappointed in the chancellor and I’m disappointed in the prime minister. They both talk the talk of one-nation Conservatives and if you don’t look after the people who have nothing, you’re not a one-nation Conservative.”
Branding the decision as “short-term thinking”, she continued: “We’ve got a massive rebuild to come out of this pandemic and we’re not through the pandemic at all yet. Until we have to rebuild the economy, we’re going to have to look at one of the biggest, biggest issues facing all of us, which is growing old. We’ve got a welfare state based on post-war Britain, not based on the 21st century.”
Before the chancellor bowed to pressure – announcing a six-month extension to the uplift at the March Budget – Dame Louise previously outlined her opposition to scrapping the uplift in a BBC interview, suggesting that people would see the Conservatives as the “nasty party” if they did so.
Asked what message the government would be sending to the country if the uplift is removed in the autumn, she reiterated the point, telling The Independent: “I think it’s a message which is they are prepared to be nasty again and that’s terrible really in a country that is trying to pull together because of the pandemic, we’re prepared to go back to being the nasty party. That’s what it says to me.”
Pointing to figures from the Department for Work and Pensions showing the number of people claiming universal credit has doubled from pre-pandemic levels, Dame Louise also said the coming winter may be worse than the last.
“If everybody thinks the last winter was tough on poor people, then think again,” she warned. “Everybody will think we’re back to normal. We’re not back to normal in the world of poverty, we’ve doubled the numbers of people in that group, we’ve got a year of kids sharing one phone to try and do homeschooling.
“The implications of the pandemic on people who are disadvantaged and exponential and that isn’t going to change this winter. What will change, I worry, are the hardening of the attitudes within government around these issues.”
Dame Louise added. “Everybody has been affected by the pandemic, some are in bloody yachts sailing in the sunset and some are on rafts that have sunk. We all know that the pandemic has disproportionately hit people more than others. It would be a chance for a reset for the government and that’s what they are missing.”
Speaking last week, Ms Coffey told MPs that the uplift would be removed in the autumn, saying: “A collective decision was made that as we see the economy open up, we shift the focus strongly on to getting people into work and jobs.”
Mr Johnson added that as the UK lifted Covid-19 restrictions, “the emphasis has got to be on getting people into work and getting people into jobs”.
“If you’re going to make a choice between more welfare or better, higher-paid jobs, I’m going to go for better, higher-paid jobs.”
Quizzed on whether he would review the cut before September, the prime minister replied: “Of course I keep everything under under constant review, but I’ve given you a pretty clear steer about what my instincts are.”
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